Sundance 2014: 'Ivory Tower' Highlights Inefficient University System

January 19, 2014

Ivory Tower

Last year, student debt in the United States hit a milestone $1 trillion, with no signs of slowing down as admission and tuition are steadily increasing and have been for decades. Enter director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) and his documentary Ivory Tower, which looks at the inefficiency and shortcomings in university education, more specifically, the lack of government funding causing a rise in tuittion, but also the unwise spending on amenities that seem to hinder, more than bolster, their students' education, and the quality of it too. While the documentary seems one-sided to the point of beating a dead horse for the first half, it does move into more neutral and analytical territory. More below!

Initially, Rossi uses a variety of experts who have criticized the flawed university systems in a world where self-made entrepreneurs and increasing young people are educating themselves in the age of information. The documentary seems to trounce on various universities and their shortcomings as far as spending millions on recreation centers and luxurious residential accommodations to attract students while their standards on the education themselves seem to fall. These students are falling over themselves paying exorbitant student loans, in an economy that isn't hiring them for jobs, not even janitorial work. But there's still respect for the institution of college and its history as it focuses on the modern problems as society evolves.

After the audience understands this idea, the continued criticism feels a bit excessive and it seems like this is a rather bias documentary. But it takes a fantastic turn by analyzing various alternatives to standard higher education; free schools like the all-male Deep Springs College (similar to the Quest School for Higher Learning in the film Admission with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd) with a two-year program where students decide the focus of their classes, and also learn valuable labor skills.

Ivory Tower

But the film then shines a light on the more traditional Spelman College, a historically black, all-female university where African-American students find themsevles adopting a more unique identity, as opposed to white-dominated schools where they are just the minority. It pushes the idea that a university environment like this helps students figure out their identity and stand out. These segments are enlightening, informative, and should be mandatory viewing for anyone considering college.

Then the film explores less traditional options like UnCollege and The Peter Thiel Fellowship. While each is give their due diligence and paints a portrait full of positives, they are followed up by experts explaining the shortcoming and negatives on the other side. It's the latter half with both sides of this argument that makes the documentary a great examination of this issue. And scattered throughout is the story of a student revolution of sorts at New York's Cooper Union, which has offered free higher education for 150 years, but has recently decided to charge tuition under the school's new president. The chronicle of the students' demonstration against the move is inspiring, powerful and necessary.

Ivory Tower initially takes what seems to be a singular approach to an increasing dangerous issue for young people and higher education, but thankfully Rossi decides to explore the options outside of traditional universities. Conflicting experts offer a wide breadth of knowledge and stances that moreso shine a light on the problem as opposed to offering a solution. Ivory Tower aims to inform, and let's the audience, especially students, decide how they want to be educated and what kind of future they wish to see. Ivory Tower is eye-opening, urgent, and full of knowledge on the subject of debt and education.

Ethan's Sundance 2014 Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Ethan on Twitter - @Ethan_Anderton

Find more posts: Documentaries, Review, Sundance 14



"Lack of government funding" lol. Government guaranteeing student loans is the problem don't know why you libs can't see that. Universities don't care about reducing costs because they know 100% of people can get student loans in any amount they want and the university is guaranteed to be paid. Also need to address the useless tenured liberal professors who teach/indoctrinate one class and spend the rest of their time theorizing new and exciting ways to bankrupt the country. When it comes down to insuring access (Dems) vs. controlling costs (Repubs) if the Democrat model wins out you can guarantee a system will fail. See also, Obamacare. Government should only provide loans to people in useful areas of study - trade school, doctors, engineers, scientists. How about you can't get a student loan if you want to major in philosophy or women's studies (or god forbid lawyers) and run up a $100,000 debt you can't pay because you have no employment prospects outside of (laughably enough) a university system. Problem solved.

Eric Kingman on Jan 19, 2014


Yes, higher education is heavily subsidized which is has lead to large amount of waste in high education. As for the rest of your non-sense, Democrats and Republicans are both responsible for this mess. First there's too much spending and then you state government should only spend money on the people you think deserve it.

redtie on Jan 19, 2014


Maybe the country could stop trying to convince the youth that with out a degree you cannot be successful. The 2 most Successful people in my life did not go to college. And the people I know who went to school are spending their days working well below the level they assumed their degree would give them.

Brian Sleider on Jan 19, 2014


There are a lot of things rotten with the (higher) education system and its culture ever since its inception. Thinking and talking about it makes me livid so I'm always interested in watching these kinds of documentaries. Having the benefit of living in a country where I don't have to put myself into debt for education, I have been through the works and it has left a taste of disdain in my whole being of this elitist culture and ideology surrounding it.

Neuromancer on Jan 19, 2014


Shame. Paradigm shift away from a "for profit" system.

DAVIDPD on Jan 19, 2014


This movie I hope will be the final piece that is needed to wake up the American people and truly understand what is happening to our children! The student loan system is outdated and has been corrupted to the core. Education is not about huge profits which it seems..... is what our president and Congress think. There is not one plan either has proposed that the lenders, schools, and our very own government will not make huge profits first.Our children the future of our Great Country deserve an affordable education and given advice and direction of which path is best individually......The student loan debt has increased from $850 Billion 4 years ago to now $1.2 Trillion That's with a "T" and the scary part is the student loan debt is growing faster today than ever before! The President and Congress spent $7 Billion to get elected in 2012 and now with the new Supreme Court rulings this amount could easily double in 2016! When Congress approval ratings is at 16%????? you tell me who they are working.... for it's not our children! You can find me at Project Tuition Reimbursement "A child comes into this world with only hope..the only gold we will leave this earth with is our word" Anthony Eller

Anthony_Eller on Jun 15, 2014

New comments are no longer allowed on this post.



Subscribe to our feed -or- daily newsletter:
Follow Alex's main account on twitter:
For the latest posts only - follow this one:

Add our updates to your Feedly - click here

Get the latest posts sent in Telegram Telegram